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Customer Review

Although the play by Edmund Trzcinski and Donald Bevan had been a smash hit on Broadway, most insiders did not expect STALAG 17 to succeed as a film. The story concerned WWII American POWs held in a Nazi camp--but it combined serious drama with broad farce and offered one of the first anti-heroes in American film in the leading role. And with the war still very fresh in every one's mind, the combination seemed more likely to offend than appeal. Every one concerned held their breath when the film debuted: would audiences get it? They did indeed, and STALAG 17 became one of the most critically-lauded and commercially popular films of the early 1950s, picking up an Academy Award nomination for director Billy Wilder and a Best Actor Oscar for William Holden in the process.
The story concerns American prisoners of war held in the German "Stalag 17" in 1944, and it begins grimly: after much planning, the Americans have devised an escape for two of their number, but the next morning the bullet-riddled bodies of the two men are dragged into camp and dumped in the mud. But the escape plan should have worked. It was perfect. How did the Germans know? Suspicion begins to settle on J.J. Sefton (Holden), a bitter cynic and hardbitten opportunist who spends his time running various scams designed to strip his fellow prisoners of what little they have.
While this might have worked as drama pure and simple, the film counterbalances its darkness with streaks of a sort of "boys will be boys" broad farce played out in the most over-the-top way imaginable. And strange to say, even given the overplaying typical of the early 1950s, the balance works: for every dramatic twist there is a stroke of comedy, and for every stroke of comedy there is a dramatic twist. In Wilder's hands the ensemble cast, which includes the likes of Otto Preminger and Peter Graves, performs some of the most remarkable juggling of the decade. But the glue here is William Holden. Interestingly, according to most sources Holden hated the play and hated the character and did the project under duress. Whatever the case, he gives a truly remarkable performance: Sefton is not a likable man by any stretch of the imagination, but even so he has certain self-integrity that you cannot help but admire. While Holden is now probably best remembered for his performances in SUNSET BLVD and NETWORK, his work here is likely the finest of his entire career.
There has been some complaint that STALAG 17 is disrespectful to WWII prisoners of war, for it paints their Nazi captors as buffoons and camp conditions as not so much horrific as merely unpleasant--and it is true that the film makes no serious portray the extreme difficulties most POWs encountered. But to say that it is disrespectful to POWs is akin to saying that 42nd STREET is disrespectful to chorus girls: we know, just as 1953 audiences knew, that this is not an attempt to portray reality; it is instead a story told via our willing suspension of disbelief--and a very entertaining story it is indeed.
The DVD is truly a "no frills" product, but the print is crisp. And if you are expecting a realistic examination of men at war you may be disappointed. But still, this is a memorable film, directed with great skill, performed by an exceptional cast, and with a sharp story and clever script. It bears repeat viewing extremely well--which is a great deal more than one can say for most films made. Recommended.
--GFT (Amazon Reviewer)--
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